Publishers Fighting Free Texts

Posted November 6, 2009 at 6:06pm

A former Member is leading the charge for college textbook makers that are up in arms over a proposed $500 million “federal takeover— of the online coursework business, which manufacturers argue will pick the pocket of an already struggling industry.

“There are a lot of jobs at stake,— said former Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine), who is now the president of the Association of American Publishers. “These are very good-paying jobs that are scattered across the country.—

Allen’s group is crying foul about a provision included in the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which would authorize the U.S. Department of Education to spend $500 million over a decade to develop free online course materials. The expectation is that the agency would work with nonprofit educational groups to develop the online textbooks and distribute them on the Internet free of charge.

The House passed the student loan legislation on Sept. 17. The bill now awaits action in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Allen and the textbook industry are warning lawmakers that you get what you pay for. Publishers argue that they are constantly improving their course materials, a sophisticated process that Members have not contemplated and that bureaucrats are ill-equipped to handle.

“There are real questions about whether you’re going to get high-quality materials out of that plan,— Allen said. “The continuous improvement is likely to be missing. If we’re going to serve our children well, we better have the highest quality materials they can get.

“We have an awful lot at stake,— he continued. “We hope that as it goes through the Senate that people understand, first, that the legislation that passed the House and is being pushed by the Department of Education is being directed at the wrong problem.—

Allen retired from the House last year to challenge Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). So far this year, Allen’s new employer has spent roughly $335,000 on lobbying, according to Senate records.

Academic textbook manufacturers are also framing their pitch in terms of the possible economic effect of the outlay, which they argue would flood the market with free materials during an already difficult environment. In the rough-and-tumble textbook business, Allen explained that publishers compete for business class by class. Any government involvement, he said, may make demand for a title such as “Modern Principles of Economics— disappear overnight.

“Nobody can compete with free,— Allen said. “There’s a Psych 101 market, there’s an Econ 101 market, there’s a Gov 101 market. If the federal government funds materials and they succeed … it would basically be a federal takeover of a particular course.—

Allen’s colleague, Executive Director Bruce Hildebrand, said it’s difficult to determine what the provision may wind up costing book publishers. A recent industry study suggested that the online educational sector more than doubled between 2002 and 2007 and that publishers are already facing threats from piracy overseas.

“We are working closely with the U.S. Trade Representative to reduce international textbook piracy,— Hildebrand said. “It is hard to gauge what impact there will be if the Department of Education begins to compete with American publishers by producing free online course materials and giving them away to the world.—

A Democratic spokeswoman for the House Education and Labor Committee defended the provision and said it has White House backing.

“This provision, which was proposed by President [Barack] Obama, is an importantpart of our efforts to make college accessible for Americans and boost U.S. college graduation rates,— panel spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said in a statement. “Especially as more displaced workers look to continue their education and learn new skills, [it’s] critical to ensure that Americans have access to the courses and training they need to land a new job and help rebuild our economy.—

The White House and the Education Department did not comment by press time. A spokesman for the Hewlett Foundation, which supports the migration of free educational materials online, declined to specifically discuss the bill but suggested support for a possible realignment in the marketplace. “The field of open education is a very important field, and it’s something we support greatly,— said Victor Vuchic, an open-education specialist with the nonprofit organization.

Publishing executive Brian Napack tells a different story. While his firm — the nation’s fourth-largest textbook publisher — supports “the general objective of this bill,— the $500 million proposal may doom a substantial portion of revenue at his Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishing Group. How much is at stake? Napack declined to provide an estimate. But he said the textbook business has “already lost thousands and thousands of jobs.—

“The education publishing industry is the gold standard, and our books are sought worldwide. It seems to me a little off the mark to be trying to compete with that industry,— he said. “We’re supportive of what they’re trying to do. We just feel that this one part of this otherwise pretty good bill is missing the mark and may ultimately damage one of our best industries.—